Whitework embroidery does just what it says on the tin: it is embroidered work, that is white! Simple enough, right?
Well, not quite. Whitework is an umbrella term for all the types of white-on-white embroidery, including specific techniques and styles from all over the world.
Mountmellick, a surface technique with chunky cotton threads, and Carrickmacross, a delicate form of embroidered lace, both originate from Ireland. Chikankari is an Indian form of shadow work, where threads are worked mainly behind a sheer fabric to create the design. Richelieu and Reticella cutwork hail from Italy, but are closely related to Ruskin lace - famously from the English Lake District. Dresden work, from Germany, is the most famous type of pulled thread work. Ayrshire embroidery is one of the finest types of whitework and was worked in that area of Scotland. It is thought that drawn thread work originated in ancient Egypt.
I could go on, but there is so much whitework that can be found in the world that I would be going forever.
In my training as an apprentice at the Royal School of Needlework we focused on the stitches, rather than the styles. We began by learning the techniques separately, and then progressed to a 'Fine Whitework' piece, somewhat reminiscent of Ayrshire work, in which the different techniques were blended in one piece. The techniques were:
Pulled thread work: stitches pull the linen threads into a lace pattern
Surface stitches: such as satin stitch and stem stitch
Eyelets (Broderie Anglaise): a hole is made in the linen and surrounded with stitches for support
Drawn thread work: threads are removed from the linen either vertically or horizontally and a pattern of stitches is worked on the remaining threads
Cutwork (Richelieu): stitches secure the border of an area of linen which is then cut away, it is supported with a network of stitches over the cut areas
Shadow work: stitches are worked on the back of sheer fabric, which show through to the front
Mountmellick: surface stitches such as satin stitch and French knots, and Mountmellick stitch, are worked in thick cotton threads on cotton satin jean
Net embroidery / darning / needlerun lace / needle weaving: a fine thread is woven through net to form a repeating pattern